Murdoch Stephens: Fate of refugees shouldn't be a lottery

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Palestinian children stand near their house eating corn at the Shati refugee camp, in Gaza City. Photo / AP
Palestinian children stand near their house eating corn at the Shati refugee camp, in Gaza City. Photo / AP

Today is World Refugee Day and, as the first country to see the new day, New Zealand should look more at the refugee quota and less at asylum seeker issues that often dominate headlines.

Much of the talk about potential asylum seekers misses the fact that our refugee quota has not increased once in its 27 years of existence.

The quota is important because it provides a safe, certain and structured passage to residency. We also take 750 quota refugees per year, in contrast to 100 asylum seekers.

If World Refugee Day, among all the other annual days, still gives us cause to wonder, then a good proportion of that wondering should be about the fairness of our present quota.

'Are we doing our bit?' we might ask. And what is a fair standard for 'our bit' anyway?

If New Zealanders really want to know where we sit in terms of international contributions to refugee intakes - as opposed to fears, fantasies and fictions - we need to consider two things: what we're doing compared to what we've done in the past, and what we are doing compared to what other countries are doing now.

First, the total number of refugees accepted into the country is made of accepted asylum seekers plus the refugee quota. But ever since the Twin Towers fell in 2001, New Zealand, like all other countries, has become a lot more cautious about who can fly here. As aeroplanes are the only way asylum seekers make it to New Zealand, the number of asylum applications and acceptances has plummeted. Fifteen years ago we accepted around 350 accepted asylum seekers coming to New Zealand every year. Today we accept about 100.

The Minister of Immigration says that we shouldn't be 'punished' for so few asylum seekers being able to get here. I say that doing our bit for a very small proportion of those people who are born into violence and intolerance isn't a punishment: it's hospitality. I say that when we close the door on asylum seekers, we should open a window. That window is an increase our refugee quota. If we add another 250 places to the quota we're taking the same total number of refugees as we were 15 years ago. This would have us at 1000 quota places.

Second, New Zealand has not increased our refugee quota since it was implemented in 1987. That was the year of the first Rugby World Cup and the year Lotto began: winning the first division in 1987 would have netted you $359,808.

Luckily for the nation's gamblers, the first division prize has slowly grown since then. Not so the country's refugee quota. In fact, it has only moved once: down by 50 places in 1997. Imagine how many people would be satisfied with Lotto if the first division prize pool had not only not grown, but had actually dropped.

If New Zealand's refugee quota had increased for our population growth since 1987, we'd be taking another 250 refugees. These first two statistics show that to be doing the same as we have in the past, we'd be offering 1250 places in our quota.

Third, we need to look at what the rest of the world does in comparison to us. This is not pretty. In the last year the UN ranked New Zealand as 88th in the world for hosting refugees per capita.

The Minister of Immigration likes to highlight that we are 6th in the world at accepting people through the quota per capita. But the simple fact is that that excludes asylum seekers and is only a small part of the measure of total refugees hosted.

Doubling the quota to 1500 places will not make us Sweden. The Swedes, as well as other Scandinavian countries, host more than 20 times the amount of refugees as New Zealand per capita.

Doubling the quota won't even put us on a par with Australia, who doubled their quota under the Labor government, then cut it back under the Liberals. With Abbott's lower aim they will still take more than three times as many as New Zealand per capita.

It is a great feeling when New Zealand punches above its weight on international affairs. And it's tempting to assume that the diversity of people in New Zealand means that we are a world leader at hosting refugees. But the facts and the evidence show that this is not true.

Doubling the refugee quota and the associated funding won't make us world leaders. It will not make us Sweden or the USA, Denmark or Australia. We'll still be doing less than all of those countries if we progressively and sensibly worked towards a quota of 1500.

Will we doing our bit then? Not really, though it gets murkier. What is absolutely conclusive, however, is that we're not doing our bit now.

* Murdoch Stephens is co-ordinator for Doing Our Bit a campaign to double New Zealand's refugee quota and funding.

- NZ Herald

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